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February 24, 1984 - Image 29

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1984-02-24

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The Holocaust Diaries of Etty Hillesum

Hillesum was naturally
Etty Hillesum was 27 bound up with other preoc-
years old in 1941 when she cupations. She was among
began to keep a diary. This that majority of Dutch Jews
event was unusual in two who did not go into hiding.
ways: most people develop Her memoir therefore pro-
the diary habit much earlier vides precious documenta-
in life and, Etty began her tion about the atmosphere
journal entries in Amster- of occupied Holland where
dam, during the German oc- the Nazi jack boot could be
seen everywhere.
cupation of Holland.
After her work at a
The surprises do not end
there. The temptation to Jewish communal organ-
compare her diary with that ization, Etty would return
of Anne Frank is very each night to consign her
strong but it must be re- thoughts of the day to her
sisted. Anne Frank's tes- diary. It is the mirror of her
timony is that of a young anguish and torment, as one
girl in the throes of adoles- might expect. But it is also
cence. Etty's is that of a ma- the reflection of her probing
ture woman given over, as and inquisitive mind.
It tells us, for example,
many of her friends used to
tell her, to excessive intel- about her reading habits;
Etty loved the German poet
That is the most remark- Rilke and devoured both his
able aspect of the document poetry and his collected let-
which Etty Hillesum be- ters. She also read the He-
queathed to posterity with- brew Bible, drawing
out really knowing if it spiritual comfort from it.
would see the light of day. New Testament quotations
"An Interrupted Life: The are filtered through her
Diaries of Etty Hillesum," consciousness as well.
By 1943, the Germans
has been published by
Pantheon. Although she had accelerated the "fi-
was Jewish and lived at a nal solution" for Hol-
time when being Jewish land's Jews. In Etty's
was equivalent to a sen- diary we find her sad
tence of death, Etty Hill- commentary on the
esum refers only tangen- events of the day, includ-
tially and then only at the ing her condemnation of
end of these aspects of her those Jewish authorities
who complied with Nazi
Her end came at age 29 requests to provide in-
when she was shipped by formation about the ci-
the Nazis from the ty's Jewish population.
In Westbork where she
Westbork detention
camp in Holland to Au- was sent with other women
schwitz — where she was prior to the final transfer to
incinerated along with so the concentration camps
many other of her people. Etty pondered long and
In the two years that are hard on the fate which had
compressed within the befallen her and her people.
pages of her diary there Despite the travail of the
emerges a woman of rare hour she summons up in-
psychological sensitivity, credible spiritual strength.
"And yet I don't think life
religious faith and intellec-
is meaningless," she writes
tual curiosity.
after hearing that more
And sensual tastes.
That is somewhat discon- than 700,000 Jews have al-
certing because the litera- ready been murdered by the
ture designated under the Nazis. "And God is not ac-
rubric "Holocaust" is gen-
erally a chaste one. Etty Shakespeare's
Hillesum's contribution to `Merchant' Is
the genre adds a new di-
mension. Much of her jour- Target of Ire
nal is taken up with reveal-
ing statements about her dents below Grade 12
attitudes towards the should not be studying
pleasures Of the flesh — in Shakespeare's "Merchant of
which she participated Venice" because of its anti-
actively, especially with Jewish stereotypes, accord-
Mr. S.
ing to a Carleton University
Her diary provides ample linguistics professor.
description of the "wrestl-
Dr. Aviva Freedman said
ing" matches (an exquisite the play helps "create and
euphemism) she engaged in perpetuate" the image of
with the latter in the board- the Jews as evil money
ing house where she lived in grubbers.
Amsterdam. In addition,
Younger students, she
Etty reflected much on the pointed out, are not mature
dialetic of love and many of enough to read the work
her observations are as in- without perhaps being
structive as they are sensi- influenced by it. "They don't
have the intellectual
"Perhaps that is the sophistication to be able to
only way of kissing a see Shakespeare was using
man," she writes during a stereotype of his time,"
one of her lyrical intros- Freedman said.
pective recollections.
She plans to present a
"Not just out of sensual- brief later this month to the
ity but also from a desire board of education of
to breathe for one mo- Lakehead, Northern On-
ment out of a single tario, urging it to stop hav-
mouth. So that a single ing this play taught in a
breath passes through Grade 10 class.
While her thoughts re-
Knavery is the best de-
turn constantly to love, Etty fense against a knave.


countable to us for the
senseless harm we cause
one another. We are ac-
countable to Him. I know
about everything and I am
no longer appalled by the
latest reports. In one way or
another I know it all. And
yet I find life beautiful and
meaningful. From minute
to minute."
Yet there were other sides
to Etty. After witnessing
the daily spectacles of suf-
fering which confronted her
at her administrative job in
Amsterdam (the round-ups
of Dutch Jews, the suicides
of friends and acquain-
tances), Etty gave in to de-
"My body is-a home for
many pains," she cries
out. They lie hidden in
every corner with first
this one making itself felt
and then the next. I have
become reconciled to
that, too. And I wonder
how I can work so well
and even concentrate
with all my aches and
But work she did, both in
Amsterdam and in
Westbork where she com-
mitted her final thoughts to
her ever-present alter ego,
the diary. There she de-
scribes her awful plight of
husbandless women,
mothers with children,
women in advanced stages
of pregnancy — all of whom
she tried to succor as she
staved off the impending
Etty Hillesum died in Au-
schwitz on Nov. 30, 1943.
Her diary, a posthumous ac-
count of the darkest period
in Dutch-Jewish history,
surfaced only a few years
ago and was published in
Holland. It was an instant
best seller in that country.
It is tempting to say that
its success was due to the
work's universalist value;
that is certainly true in
part. Yet Etty Hillesum's

Friday, February 24, 1984 29

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universalism was rooted in
her historical experience as
a Jewish woman who had
the misfortune to have
sojourned on earth when it
was not safe to do so for her
and so many others.
She walked on the pave-
ment of hell but left us an
eternal memento of her pas-
sage there. We are the bet-
ter for reading it.






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